Breaking down the teams
Two teams. Three days. 28 matches.
When it's all said and done, 12 men (plus captain and assistants) will be the happiest people on the planet, celebrating in a way usually restricted for Super Bowls and lotteries. The other 12 will barely force a smile, knowing that for the next two years they are responsible for not owning the Cup.
Golf Digest breaks down what each team needs to do to become the happy winners rather than the desolate losers.
The U.S. team
On paper it looks like another American Dream Team.
Start with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, add the fact Hal Sutton takes three other major champions with him to Oakland Hills, and the U.S. is once again favored to win the Ryder Cup.
But as U.S. Olympic basketball coach Larry Brown knows, getting a bunch of superstars to jell is not as easy as Joe Torre makes it look with the New York Yankees. That is Sutton's greatest challenge when he gets to Oakland Hills. He must instill team chemistry, similar to what Tony Jacklin did in 1983, creating a blueprint that has worked for Europe for more than 20 years. "I think it's a tougher job for the American captain," Jacklin told Golf World. "He's dealing with a lot of guys who have done it their own way."
Jacklin's psychological formula was to manufacture a sense of us against the world. He identified his best player -- Seve Ballesteros -- as his leader, paired his best players together and let it roll. Teams like Ballesteros-José Maria Olazábal, Nick Faldo-Colin Montgomerie, and one of the all-time best, Monty and present Euro captain Bernhard Langer, were nearly unstoppable. Lanny Wadkins studied it as a player and dealt with it as a captain at Oak Hill in 1995. "They get them and they ride them, and if they lose they put them back out," he said.
American captains have struggled to find winning combinations. In the last three Ryder Cups, Europe has used 21 different teams in 48 foursomes and four-ball matches, winning 28˝ of a possible 48 points. Tom Kite (1997), Ben Crenshaw (1999) and Curtis Strange (2002) used 34 pairings in the last three Cups and lost two of the three matches.
It's not like the U.S. teams are comparable to the Boston Red Sox of the late 1970s -- 25 taxi cabs for 25 players. In fact, Sutton believes there has been too much of a buddy system involved in the pairings, and he intends to change it. "I've had players tell me who they thought they played well with," Sutton said. "I said, 'That's great. Don't expect it.' "
For instance, Sutton would not rule out a Woods-Mickelson pairing despite their perceived chilly relationship. "That would be one hell of a team," said Sutton. If he went that way, it would mean breaking up two winning combos from the 2002 team. Paired with David Toms, Mickelson went 2-1-1. And after playing with seven different partners in his first 10 matches, Woods went 2-0 with Davis Love III at The Belfry.
Sutton admits he's "penciling things in and then scratching it out, penciling in and then scratching it out." But it's clear he took Stewart Cink for putting and Jay Haas for stability, so look for them to get playing time in the alternate shots, along with Fred Funk, the straightest driver on the PGA Tour, and Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion. His five rookies (Funk, Kenny Perry, Chris Riley, Chad Campbell and Chris DiMarco) are seasoned tour winners, but expect them to be paired with Ryder Cup veterans.
"A lot of it depends on how they're playing when they get there," said Wadkins, the only American captain in the last 10 years to enjoy a Saturday night lead. "You never know. Some guys handle things better than others."
Unfortunately for Wadkins, his team was blown out in the singles and lost. Woods, DiMarco and Cink have shown the best form in the last month, although the U.S. Open-type set-up at Oakland Hills could work against Tiger. As for handling the suffocating Cup pressure once they get there, history shows they aren't quite as good at that as the Europeans. "We'll play to win," Sutton promised, not guaranteeing that they would.
The European team
No major champions. Five rookies. No Swedes, zany or otherwise. Only the 1979 European Ryder Cup team -- the first to include players from outside Great Britain and Ireland -- was less cosmopolitan (the 12 players hail from five countries) in terms of nations represented. Truly, the 2004 Euro team, the first to be captained by a German who lives in Florida and has an American wife, is a little bit different.
And, when it comes to administration, prone to the odd, unforced error. As skipper Bernhard Langer named Colin Montgomerie as one of his two wild-card picks, he introduced him as hailing from England, an utterance that drew loud and immediate protests from Scottish journalists.
No matter. The young side -- average age just more than 32 -- will look to the aforementioned Montgomerie as its spiritual leader at Oakland Hills. The 41-year-old Scot, who has struggled over the last few months in the wake of a well-publicized marriage breakup, has been, in fact if not figures, the best player on either team at the last three Ryder Cups. At The Belfry in 2002, he emerged unbeaten from five matches in which he was never at any time even one hole down; a magnificent feat at such an exalted level.
Many feel that the steadily resurgent Monty will bring that experience to bear on guiding Luke Donald, Langer's other pick, in foursomes play. The pair -- both are fairways-and-greens types -- would be perfect partners in alternate-shot competition. The four-balls are different though. In that more attacking format, the likelihood is Donald will team with fellow Englishman Paul Casey. Five years ago in the Walker Cup, the pair was unbeaten as Great Britain & Ireland surged to victory. Casey's greater length and ability to make birdies is the ideal foil for the ever-steady Donald.
"They were my 'flash' boys," said Peter McEvoy, the skipper of the '99 Walker Cup squad. "As the two best players on the side, I sent them out first every time. They were great together, both on and off the course. A big part of any successful partnership is compatibility."
The same can be said for the previously successful coupling of Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia. At The Belfry in 2002, the Anglo-Spanish duo won three points. Besides, the generally amiable Westwood might be the only European player able to tolerate the cocky Garcia, who is hardly the most popular figure among his teammates.
Should the teaming of Westwood and Garcia fail to maintain its spark, look for the Englishman to pair with his friend and managerial stablemate David Howell. Howell, unknown to most Americans but one of the steadiest players in Europe, has a game made for foursomes.
If Langer is a follower of McEvoy's social compatibility theory, then the two Irishmen, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, will play together. Former neighbors in the Sunningdale area near London, the two are close friends off the course and should be comfortable together on it.
As for the other Irishman, Padraig Harrington, it is likely that he will be paired with Miguel Angel Jiménez. Both play, shall we say, on the slow side, and they performed better than their results would suggest when teamed at Brookline in 1999.
Which leaves Thomas Levet and Ian Poulter. Levet brings more than on-course steadiness and fine recent form to the side -- the Frenchman's outgoing personality will go down well in the team room. More importantly, his cheeriness should inspire the eccentric and potentially brilliant Poulter.
Then again, it could be altogether different. Given that Langer has perplexed some players with his decisions leading up to the matches -- most notably the selection of Swede Anders Forsbrand as vice-captain -- anything is possible once the gun goes. Colin Montgomerie of England indeed.